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Dannielle Brown has been on a hunger strike astonishingly for more than 70 days outside the gates of Duquesne University as she presses for answers about the death of her son Marquis Jaylen Brown, who was enrolled at the school when he fell from his 16th floor dorm room on October 4, 2018. The university shared with her an internal police report, but she says officials thus far have thwarted her efforts to conduct an independent investigation of the incident, which took place while three campus officers were in the room with him, and no other witnesses.
As the two-year anniversary of the incident approaches, and with it the statute of limitations for filing a civil lawsuit against the school, Dannielle is resigned in her quest and has elevated her personal crusade to a cry for nationwide campus law enforcement reform to include mandatory use of body cameras.
Her efforts have gained support from Ava DuVernay, who tweeted about Dannielle’s hunger strike, and family members of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and others with whom Dannielle gathered backstage at the Aug. 28 Commitment March in D.C. on the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington.
“I am not hopeful, but I will stay after [the] anniversary,” the determined mother tells REVOLT. “What Duquesne has fueled is a fight bigger than myself. I am not hopeful they will cooperate with me, but I want to ensure no mother will ever have to go through this again. I will stay until I see the body cameras, and I know they have a training curriculum.”
Dannielle’s broader quest for justice focuses on two areas: transparency with families regarding on-campus incidents with the police, and body cameras and better crisis intervention training for officers and first responders.
“When our children have these interactions with law enforcement, especially on majority white campuses, they are either damaged physically, damaged psychologically, damaged emotionally or dead,” she says.
It’s a cause she is willing to die for, and with each passing day, Dannielle’s condition grows more precarious. Her body is beginning to break down subsisting solely on liquids — vitamin water, coconut water, grapefruit juice — after she took a leave of absence from her job at the Department of Defense, said goodbye to her other son Jamal and headed north. On the way, she realized she hadn’t eaten in more than 24 hours.
“I decided I was going to make justice my meal. That’s what I’m hungry for. That’s when I decided I’m not going to eat until I get the information I came for,” she continues. “I made sure I understood my why, and I am resolved in my decision to take my last breath at the same place where my son took his last breath.”
Dannielle and Duquesne continue to share conflicting stories about what they say happened that night almost two years ago, and transpired since.
According to both, Jaylen, a junior who was a member of the school football team, smoked marijuana and later began acting strangely. Campus police were called for a noise complaint. That’s where the discrepancies begin to emerge. Dannielle says the school told her once the officers were in the room with him, Jaylen grabbed a chair, busted the window and jumped out. In published reports, the school concludes the death was unavoidable, and that nobody was at fault.
Duquesne has been putting out press releases filled with “false narratives,” counters Dannielle, who has a master’s degree in counseling and psychology. “They told me the officers went into shock. I say, ‘You said they were thoroughly trained in de-escalation,’ and one was retired from the police department.”
Dannielle also notes as far as she knows, the school conducted no drug test on others who were with Jaylen when he smoked, and went on with homecoming celebrations with no sanctions. “There are a lot of questions that make me as a mother scratch my head.”
In her quest for answers, Dannielle initially hired civil rights attorney S. Lee Merritt — who’s currently serving as the lawyer for Arbery’s family, and connected Dannielle with them and the families of Floyd and Taylor. She’s since brought in a new Pennsylvania-based team that can better focus on her case. She aims to file a civil suit before the statute of limitations runs out on the two-year anniversary of Jaylen’s death.
In a recent document released Aug. 12, Duquesne officials state that for a year and a half neither Dannielle nor her attorney sought additional information from the school regarding Jaylen’s death, and that representatives met with her “immediately” at a social distance meet-up after she voiced additional demands.
“Ms. Brown has added a new demand in addition to her original three demands. Ms. Brown now has communicated that she is making a substantial monetary demand of the University. Such a payment is not warranted by the facts,” the press release notes.
Dannielle refutes this claim. “Going to court is a long, drawn-out process, and it still comes down to talking about money. I went on a hunger strike to get access, and put pressure on the school to allow my investigate team to do their investigation, let me have the opportunity to represent my son’s voice in the narrative,” she says. “No amount of money can bring my child back.”
Dannielle is elevating her voice during a time of racial justice reckoning. “If I was a white mother pursuing this course of action and on a hunger strike for 51 days, I think the result would be a lot different,” she says. “The lack of empathy they have for this grieving mother… and I hear it mostly from Caucasian men driving by, one has to wonder.”
Floyd’s death motivated her to take action, she says.
“I thought about how this symbolized how so many of us mothers feel that we can’t breathe as long as we don’t know what happened to our children. And there are so many of us in the African-American community,” she says. “Crimes that have gone unresolved and unsolved. Our children, our unarmed children, are being killed at the hands of police officers. I’ve been suffocating for the past two years not knowing the truth. Suffocating not being able to have all the questions asked and answers. It wasn’t until then that I realized I had to get to Pittsburgh. I called my attorney and said, ‘I need you to get over here and do my will because I’m not sure if I’m coming back.’”
Dannielle’s actions have been gaining attention. She documents her days at Pittsburgh’s Freedom Corner on social media, tagging luminaries including Oprah Winfrey, Gayle King, JAY-Z’s Roc Nation, John Legend, and DuVernay. Members of the Floyd family came to see her and stand in solidarity while on their journey from Minnesota to D.C. to attend the Commitment March. DuVernay on Aug. 20 tweeted about Dannielle’s plight.
But it’s not enough, yet.
“I don’t know what my fate will be. I want to live, but I also am resolved in my why and I’m willing to take me last breath,” she says. “Duquesne wants to make it about them. But, it’s not only about them. They’re part of a larger problem. No institution should withhold information from a family, especially a grieving mom... And no institution should prevent a family from conducting an independent investigation if they are financing it.”